Answer: An MSN is a Master of Science in Nursing degree, which is the formal designation for a master’s-level nursing program. MSN programs provide advanced clinical practice and leadership training to qualified Registered Nurses (RNs). While there is a general master’s in nursing curriculum, MSN programs are designed to furnish RNs with tailored instruction in a specialization. These specializations include: Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL); nursing administration; nursing education; and the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specializations of Clinical Nurse Specialist, Nurse-Anesthetist, Nurse-Midwife, and Nurse Practitioner (NP).
MSN degree programs offer the next level of training to practicing nurses who have attained state licensure as RNs through the completion of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) program, or a hospital-based nursing diploma program. There are also direct-entry MSN programs designed for students who hold non-nursing bachelor’s degrees and who are not RNs. Students in direct-entry programs receive training to become an RN prior to beginning the MSN curriculum.
MSN programs furnish students with advanced knowledge and proficiencies in clinical and managerial areas of nursing in preparation for careers in nursing administration, nursing education, and various advanced practice specializations. While an MSN degree is not a formal requirement for nurse administrators and nurse educators, master’s-level training is often necessary to move forward in those fields. In areas of clinical specialization, an MSN degree or a master’s-level graduate certificate is generally a requirement for the licensing and credentials necessary to practice. This is true for Clinical Nurse Leaders (CNLs) and for Advance Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs), a category that include Nurse Practitioners (NPs), Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs), Certified Nurse-Midwifes (CNMs), and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CNRAs).
The MSN curriculum can be broken down into three main components: general advanced topics in nursing practice; training in a nursing specialization; and practice-based clinical hours. There are several recognized professional organizations that set curricular guidelines for and provide accreditation to MSN programs. These include the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME), the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME), the Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA), and the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA).
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), which is the parent organization of the CCNE accreditation body, maintains Curriculum Guidelines for various APRN programs and other MSN program specializations. It also provides a general outline of core MSN proficiencies in The Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing (2011). That document includes a framework detailing nine general areas of instruction for MSN programs:
MSN programs usually include at least 500 hours of supervised clinical training in the form of internships and practicums, although some specializations require a substantially larger number of clinical training hours. Clinical hours are typically completed in a student’s area of specialization, which also determines the focus of some of the coursework in an MSN program.
A key feature of the MSN degree is its area of concentration. MSN programs are designed to provide intensive training in a nursing specialization and to prepare RNs for leadership roles in nursing administration, nursing education, patient safety, and healthcare technologies, or for advanced certification and licensure in APRN specializations. Some of the more common non-APRN MSN program specializations include:
APRN specializations in MSN programs include:
Nurse Practitioner programs have an additional level of specialization, which include:
There are a variety of different types of MSN programs that are designed to accommodate students with a range of needs and priorities, including online MSN programs, traditional campus-based MSN programs, and hybrid programs. Most MSN programs require applicants to hold a valid RN license. However, there are direct-entry MSN programs that accommodate applicants who have completed a non-nursing bachelor’s degree program but are not licensed RNs. Other admissions requirements vary by program, based in part on the following pathways to earning an MSN degree:
Depending on the pathway and the area of specialization, MSN programs may be completed in as few as two or three years of full-time enrollment. Many programs also allow students to opt for part-time enrollment, which extends the time it takes to complete the MSN degree requirements.